Posts Tagged ‘review’

How to review non-fiction

Many of us learned how to write book reports in primary school. Given the rote nature of much of America's early education, the grade we received was largely based on demonstrating we had read and comprehended the book.

But sometimes, these reports may have also been the first time we were asked our opinion about something we'd read. These books were often fiction, giving us plenty to respond to: the plot, the characters, the dialogue. Did they pull us in? Did we find them believable? How did they make us feel?

So much of what we consume as adults — not just books, but also movies and video games — is also fiction, and those early analytical skills we developed as students now help us to identify what we like and to recommend it to other people. But when confronted with non-fiction, we often resort to that rote education, as if our critical eye no longer applies.

In my job as editor of a retrocomputing magazine, I assign and receive reviews. Since there aren't many works of fiction about retrocomputing, the book reviews I publish are generally of non-fiction. The first draft of those reviews often read something like this:

In the first chapter, the author covers this period of retrocomputing. In the second chapter, she moves on to these other topics. The third chapter, which I found brief, is about this particular era…

That's not a review; that's a summary, able to be recited by almost anyone who read the book. A review, by contrast, is a personal, opinionated critique of the work. The challenge is what to critique when the work lacks the narrative thread and framework of fiction.

The wonderful 2006 book Rewriting: How To Do Things With Text by Joseph Harris offers a rigorous proposal for how to respond to factual texts works with your own. In addition, I recommend these popular prompts that apply to reviews of non-fiction:

  • What, if anything, makes this an important work?
  • What does the reader stand to gain by reading this book?
  • What surprised you? Did you ever have an ah-ha moment while reading the book?
  • What is the mood or tone of the book? Optimistic, critical, playful, promotional?
  • Who is the target audience for the book?
  • Was it easy or difficult to read? Fun and rewarding to read?
  • Does the book deliver on its promise?
  • How is the print quality? Is the book too small or too big? Do the pages feel flimsy?
  • Is the book a good value?
  • What is missing?

While describing the contents of a book is necessary, it should not constitute the majority of the review. By answering the above questions, your response to the original text will prove that you read it and will offer an informed recommendation to your reader.

Review: Machine of Death

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die (Machine of Death #1)Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die, edited by Ryan North

A machine that tells you how you die, in vague yet accurate terms. It is never wrong, and your fate cannot be avoided. This anthology collects individual stories of people who encounter this machine. Although all the tales have the machine's functionality in common, there is no one persistent world: sometimes the machine is dismissed as a novelty; other times, an entire society will remodel itself around the predictions. For one couple, the machine means doom; for another, it brings hope.

I loved the variety of these 33 stories, each starting with an illustration and a prediction that somehow relates to the story, serving as its title. My favorite was "Almond", followed by:

  • Torn Apart and Devoured by Lion
  • Despair
  • Suicide
  • Aneurysm
  • Nothing
  • Miscarriage

and, of course, "HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle".

There was honestly not a bad story in the lot, but my least favorites were "Not Waving but Drowning", "Improperly Prepared Blowfish", "Love Ad Nauseum", and "Drowning".

Each story left me a degree of chilled. What would I do if faced with such an opportunity? Would I learn of my fate, or leave it unknown? How would I react to knowing how I'd die? Would my actions to avoid the prophecy serve only to fulfill it? Would I take up arms in protest of the machine? I hope I never need to know. I've already picked up from the library the sequel, This Is How You Die, and look forward to absorbing more macabre tales.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review: Still Foolin' 'Em

Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My KeysStill Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys by Billy Crystal

Billy Crystal seems to be one of the few upright, sincere, and trustworthy celebrities in Hollywood. He had led an incredible life without being sensationalist, as we learn in this biography, from his time on the stand-up comedy circuit to his break into TV and movies and his unlikely friendships with childhood heroes Mickey Mantle and Muhammad Ali. Interspersed are some opinionated tangents on social, political, philosophical, and familial topics, which break up the narrative neatly.

Few books make me literally laugh out loud; Crystal's book did it four times in the first ten pages. Although not every chapter was that concentrated with funny, it was still an enjoyable read that drove me to seek out some of his film works that I've previously missed, like Running Scared and 61*.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: The Night Sessions

The Night SessionsThe Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

I can't remember the last time I bothered finishing a book I liked this little.

Much of my dislike comes from too many or too few details. There were a lot of threads interwoven throughout this police procedural, and although the author tied them all together, the crimes feel more spread out than necessary; it didn't follow that the perpetrator would go from Crime A and Crime B to Crime Z. Other unexplained details include the space elevators and soletas, which cast a shadow over the entire novel, but their function and value are never adequately represented. The religious aspects are adequately explained, but I feel like it requires some significant background knowledge to appreciate them.

Finally, I found it incredibly disruptive that changes in scenes flowed right from one paragraph to the next. There was no break between a character in a bar and another in a police station; or a character suddenly talking to someone who wasn't there a moment ago. I assumed this was a printing error, as what author would be this hostile to his readers? But other reviewers' similar comments on other editions of this book suggest it was in fact intentional.

I'm not a fan of procedurals in general but hoped the sci-fi elements of this book would be enough for me to enjoy it. They weren't.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Review: Blackdog

BlackdogBlackdog by K.V. Johansen

I first discovered Blackdog in Charlie Jane Anders' review on io9: "By all the Gods, this standalone epic fantasy novel is a fun ride". The first 50 pages of this book really pulled me in: it starts with a great action sequence and an interesting mythology. But after that, it just plodded. The book is called Blackdog, yet pages 100–200 focus on other characters entirely, none of them interesting. There are four different narrative threads through this book, but they don't begin to weave together until the last 100 pages. And despite everything happening slowly, the author's love of commas makes for some very long, dense sentences, as if everything that can be said must be said.

After seeing the book through to its lengthy end, I expected an exciting, dramatic climax. But the final battle is over in a heartbeat, and the repercussions seem trivial and vague, offering little payoff on my investment. I can't recommend this book.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Review: These Days by Jack Cheng

These DaysThese Days by Jack Cheng

I am seldom a reader of fiction that is not rooted in fantasy or science, so books set in our modern world are foreign to me. So I was pleasantly surprised to find how engaging These Days was. Author Jack Cheng has a fluid narrative that is colorful and evocative of New York City and the characters' physical sensations. Reading a book where the events are realistic — two twenty-somethings meet, one who's planning his future, the other who's escaping her past — was actually a refreshing change and gave me ideas for my own life.

The characters were also very relatable, at least on a personal level. I saw much of myself in the protagonist, Connor: makes his living online, connected to the social web, and perhaps a bit naive and needy in relationships. But I also related to his love interest, K, who never carries a cell phone and enjoys her time offline. It was in fact that technological divide between the love interests that led me to originally back Cheng's Kickstarter to self-publish this book.

But this is not "a story about technology", as the crowdfunding video suggested. Connor uses technology to distract himself from the present but capture and relive the past, through photos, videos, tweets, and status updates. K, by contrast, is all about living in the moment but wants desperately to forget her own history. The scene describing her motivation for doing so was so evocative, I cried — I can't remember the last book to have that effect on me. These are the true challenges the characters are facing.

The book takes us through several anecdotes that demonstrate these opposing philosophies, but the narrative never really builds. Connor hates his job, quits, and gets a new one. He doesn't like his new job, thinks about quitting, but decides to stick around. He and K go out to dinner and have a conversation. They ride on the subway and make observations about the other commuters. With the exception of some flashbacks that are occasionally hard to place in the tale's chronology, it's vignette after vignette, without any real momentum.

That's why the novel's ending came as such a shock. And again, it's one I relate to personally, as something nearly identical happened to me, which may color my reception of the book. I look to fiction to vicariously experience situations I've not yet encountered and to get into other people's heads and learn how they feel, that I might better empathize. But These Days offered neither alternative to, nor insight into, reality. I had hoped that the message would be either "Things don't have to be this way" as I find in the unreal fiction I normally gravitate to, or at the very least, "Things are this way, but here's why". I received neither source of closure from this book. It was an abrupt and heartless ending that left me unsure why anything had just happened, what the characters' motivations had been, or what either of them was supposed to learn from this experience or how they were expected to grow from it.

I normally dive right from book to book, but I was preoccupied with These Days for days afterward. Perhaps that's a sign of a good book, that it stays with you and makes you think. But, like Connor, I don't know what just happened, and I don't know that I ever will.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review: World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
by Max Brooks

I first heard about World War Z upon its release six years ago. Since then, its name has continued to pop up, including last year when it ranked #54 on NPR's list of the best fantasy and science fiction novels of all time. Some friends and I finally decided to read it together. As is typical for us, we came to a similar opinion of the book; but surprisingly, it wasn't the popular one.

Author Max Brooks presents an oral history of a now-past war against a zombie infestation. The world is slowly recovering from a global outbreak of a zombie plague, transmitted though the usual bites and scratches of the undead. Our main character, if there is one, is a journalist who has taken it upon himself to record the experiences and reflections of the war's survivors. Each chapter is presented as a monologue or, where prompting questions are called for, a dialogue.

I'm not unfamiliar with this general format, having previously enjoyed Robopocalypse. But unlike that tale, which focuses on a few characters and then weaves their threads together into a cohesive plot, World War Z rarely revisits anyone to whom the reader has been previously introduced. As a result, there is little, if any, character development or continuity throughout the disparate tales.

The only commonality I found, other than the zombie armageddon itself, was the decidedly militaristic nature of the individual stories' focus. The book's subtitle is "An Oral History of the Zombie War", with "war" proving to be the keyword. Almost every recounting is about how a soldier fought a battle, or a general planned a strategy, or a scientist invented a weapon. There are two stories from women who related how their families survived the war, but otherwise, almost no chapter is dedicated to the human element. Even the zombies are faceless foes, rarely viewed as former parents, siblings, children, or co-workers who their former friends and family are now forced to fire upon; this psychological aspect of warfare is almost wholly ignored.

English: A participant of a Zombie walk, Asbur...It's not just average citizens who are overlooked; the science of the plague also remains unaddressed. One character pointedly asks, "How come zombies freeze in the winter but come back to life in the spring? Shouldn't the water in their bodies have expanded and burst, killing them?" Another wonders, "Why do zombies that sink to the ocean floor remain whole? Tidal forces deteriorate their clothing, yet the zombies themselves keep plodding along." These are all good questions, yet neither the author nor his nameless journalist see fit to look for answers. A cure or vaccine for the plaque is never even considered.

With so little of the war's fallout examined, and so few typical plot devices present — since every chapter is the narrator's own memory, we know that he or she survived, eliminating any mystery or suspense — World War Z was not a page-turner. My colleagues, who run the gamut of hardcore sci-fi nuts to casual enthusiasts, all agreed: on an academic scale, Michele and I gave the book a C-, and Bob and Paul gave it a C. Only Gene gave World War Z a score as high as B-. It doesn't make any of us eager to see the film adaptation, which appears to bear little resemblance to Brooks' novel.


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Concrete review

Concrete Volume 1: Depths (Concrete)Concrete Volume 1: Depths by Paul Chadwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This B&W graphic novel collects the first several issues of the early 1980s comic book "Concrete", about a political speechwriter whose brain is transplanted into an impenetrable body by aliens. Freed from military directives, Concrete sets out to explore the world and do the things he was always afraid or unable to do before. It's a refreshing change from the typical superhero approach and one that feels like it was written as a reflection of, not contemporary to, the Eighties.

When I first started the book, I felt like I'd come in on the middle of the story, and that the trade paperback must've omitted some origin story. As it turns out, all that is revealed by the end of the book.

I wouldn't mind reading more of these. Thanks for the recommendation, Stepto!

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